Eating Chicago: an epic dinner at Alinea
After a harrowing taxi ride that had us clutching the doors and begging forgiveness from heaven, we were deposited in front of the gray, unmarked entrance to Alinea in the Lincoln Park neighbourhood of Chicago. The doorman, dressed inconspicuously in a dark wool coat and a muffler obscuring all but his eyes, ushered us inside before leaning in to murmur something to the taxi driver, who hastily sped away. Passing through a narrow, dark hallway with no idea what direction to turn, we came upon a dead end when suddenly, with sleek Wayne Manor technique, a door automatically slid open and granted us access to Alinea: Gourmet’s top ranked restaurant in North America, and seventh overall in the world.
Behold the lair of molecular gastronomy darling, chef Grant Achatz, who trails Michelin stars in his wake.
If you aren’t familiar with molecular gastronomy, the basic goal is to take familiar ingredients or flavours, but revision them (with the magic of SCIENCE!) to create new and surprising tastes, textures, or sensual experiences. Gone are the six foot ranges and wall mounted industrial ovens; the kitchen of a molecular chef is more like a laboratory, and you are more likely to find tools such as sous vide machines, smoke guns, atomizers and canisters of liquid nitrogen. We checked our coats as the hostess greeted us with a warm, “Good evening and happy anniversary!” (how did she know that?) and craned our necks to peer into the kitchen at our right, where a school of chefs were bustling around with a silent intensity that was as daunting as it was impressive.
Grant Achatz is a chef worth his salt, particularly as he can barely taste it. If you want a story, if you want drama and heartache, ambition and success, he is your man. Growing up in a family of diner-style restauranteurs, Achatz went to culinary school to pursue his dream of working as a chef, but not in a diner like his parents had (in one particular interview, Achatz could barely contain the sneer of disdain). No, he wanted to be at the helm, creator and manager, of the premier restaurant in the world. From lowly beginnings to his lofty dreams, he graduated from Culinary school before working under some of the best chefs of our time, including Charlie Trotter, Thomas Keller, Ferran Adria. One by one, he greedily drank up as much technique and signature style as he could from each one, before casting each off like a wet noodle in his pursuit for betterment. Which, rapidly, led him to seek out some heavy financial backing and open up his own restaurant, Alinea.
Oh yes, and then he got cancer. In his mouth. I want you to put yourself in the shoes of a man who had just been named one of America’s top up-and-coming chefs, and then wrap your head around that. It is staggering, heartbreaking and intense.
After working through cancer, radiation and chemotherapy, all without abandoning his daily work at Alinea, Grant was declared to be cancer free in 2007. However, it is only within the last year or so that he has started to adequately regain some of his sense of taste. What he did not lose, at any stage of the cancer’s progression, was his ability to envision flavours, nuanced and varied, examine textures, play with techniques, and experiment until he hit on something gustatorily breathtaking, emotive, or just plain delicious.
The part where I get all Judgey Jessy is when we talk about who Grant Achatz really is. I think of the interviews I have seen where this man talked about his humble beginnings and how he couldn’t wait to get away from them. ”Them”, of course, being the family who loved and supported him every step of the way. I think of the Grant Achatz who dumped his long suffering girlfriend -and mother of his two children – who had supported him through his education, cross country moves and the rigours of cancer, to take up with a 24 year old food writer in heels. And hey, I don’t like it. Frankly, I think he might be a bit of a cad. However, despite my Tom Brady-esque issues with Achatz as a man, he clearly has phenomenal drive, vision, and is a brilliant chef.
Also, best restaurant in America. That, in and of itself, was enough for me to suspend my judgement about the man so that I could spend five (5) hours repeatedly calling Alinea on the day that reservations opened, desperately hoping to go there for our first anniversary. When I was finally able to secure a table, and on our actual anniversary night no less, I was ecstatic. After all, eating at Alinea is a once in a lifetime experience. Especially because if you do the wine pairings, well, a lifetime is about how long it will take you to pay for it.
Now then, let us begin our foray into a night at Alinea. Be warned, if you see this thing through to the end with us, there is a lot of reading in store for you. After all, this was an 18 course meal (or 20 if you include the amuse bouche and palate cleanser), and even if we were to just write, “That was tasty!” after each course or wine pairing, we would still have a novella on our hands. So, if you’re in for the long haul, I suggest that you pour a nice glass of something fizzy and lets get to it.
Oh, and speaking of something fizzy? Before the first wine pairing, before the amuse bouche, one of the service staff greeted us and wished us a happy anniversary (HOW DO THEY KNOW THAT?!) before we were given a choice of still or sparkling water…..and then, when I asked for sparkling (of course), we had three choices of artisinal seltzer, ranging from large bubble to tiny effervescence. If I had my way, every meal would begin in exactly such a manner.
I should mention that we had the standard menu, which is a set course list that changes seasonally, and the rare wine pairings. There was a more affordable wine pairing option which was also available, but hey, why go to Alinea and opt out of the full experience?
As the sommelier poured us a small glass of sparkling H. Billiot ‘Cuvee Laetitia’ Brut, Reims (NV), he explained about the rich sweetness and cider flavors of this champagne, which does not have a vintage year because it is actually, fantastically enough, blended from their best bottles. If you are used to either a dry and fizzy brut or a sickeningly sweet ‘girls night’ sparkler, this champagne is like a revelation. The cider flavors were vivid and bold for such effervescence and it was absolutely lovely.
As soon as there were bubbles in our hands, one of the service team members lifted away the homely pumpkin, which I had thought was a surprisingly ugly table arrangement, to reveal our first course:
PUMPKIN: curry, sage, coconut
This was like a moist and dense pumpkin spice cake with a dollop of coconut cream, set off by a thin shaving of fiery red chili.
Our taste buds had barely started to tingle when the pumpkin base was removed, new glasses were placed on the table, and we had our second wine pairing of Georg Breuer ‘Terra Montosa’ Riesling, Rheingau (2008). Riesling is often sickly sweet and aggressively fruity, but not this one which was quite dry, layered, and more aromatic than perfumed.
The first course was a series of small bites splayed on a piece or reclaimed driftwood covered in some gorgeous wet seaweed.
OYSTER LEAF: mignonette
RAZOR CLAM: carrot, soy, daikon
KING CRAB: passion fruit, heart of palm, allspice
MUSSEL: saffron, chorizo, oregano
The oyster leaf was a surprise and delight for me as I had never experienced it before. The thick, smooth green leaf from the shores of Scotland did taste remarkably like a fresh oyster, and even if Achatz did steal the idea for a no-oyster course from his old tutor Ferran Adria, who can blame him? The succulent crab was like taking a bite of the tropics and almost rolled like sunshine and calypso in the mouth. The razor clam was not particularly noteworthy, but the mussel? Oh, the mussel. Seafood decadence with a smoky sausage cream, it was like a cherry picking some of the best tapas that we had in Spain, and assembling all the flavors in one tiny, perfect bite.
YUBA: shrimp, miso, togarishi
‘Yuba’ is the traditional name for tofu skin and ‘toagrishi’ is a Japanese spice blend that heavily features sesame seeds and toasted nori. The elongated shrimp had been wrapped around the crispy and surprisingly delicate yuba, perched like a skewer on a dollop of silky miso dressing that looked for all the world like an egg yolk. The sesame seeds were quite dominant flavor and yet did not overshadow the sweetness of the shrimp. However, the real star of this dish was the variance in textures.
BROOK TROUT: reflections of Steve Stallard
This isn’t so much a reflection of Steve Stallard as a flagrant plea from Achatz to please, please, please invite him back to that vacation property for just one more time because, you know, he’ll fry you up some fish if you do. The dish featured brook trout and roe from the rivers on Stallard’s property, maple syrup that was from the trees on Stallard’s property, and for all I know it might have included whiskey that was distilled in a back shed on Stallard’s property as well. This was a clever dish in appearance, served in what was reminiscent of a fishbowl, and with the appearance of a small forest glade and pond in Vermont, or some other similarly picturesque state. Again, it was the play of textures which was most captivating, and my favorite elements were the crispy fried fronds of some herb that looked like little trees, and the nasturtium leaves that floated like lily pads in the pond.
I would tell you about the next wine, but I really don’t remember. The sommelier said something about steep hills and reflections, minerals, oh jeepers, I don’t know. It was Domaine Raymond Usseglio ‘Rousanne Pur’, Châteauneuf-du-Pape (2008), and I am not nearly competent enough to tell you why it was good.
Arriving like an inverted lolly on a smoking oak branch, and sitting within what looked like my favorite head scratcher, the next dish arrived.
PHEASANT: apple, shallot, burning leaves
The pheasant was so succulent, tender and perfectly cooked that it must have been cooked sous vide. With the sweet-tartness of apple to balance the richness of the meat, and a fabulous textural contrast of the shell -which was light like tempura batter, but tender and thready – this was an absolutely luxe morsel that made you feel like feckless nobility on the way back from the fox hunt in fall. In a good way, of course.
The next wine pairing was a white burgundy, which was served warmer than I had anticipated and was closer to cellar temperature than fridge. When I inquired, the sommelier explained that burgundies followed a different temperature profile than many other wines; a white burgundy liked to be a bit warmer than most white wines, closer to cellar temperature, to really open up the nose and allow some of the more complex and caramel flavors to shine through. A red burgundy, on the other hand, liked to be served a bit cooler than most red wines, again at cellar temperature. See? Learning new things as we wait for the next course.
Comtesse Bernard de Cherisey ‘Hameau de Blagny’, Pligny-Montrachet (2006)
WILD BASS: caponata, mint, panella
This dish was supposedly reminiscent of Achatz’s favorite homestyle dish that he ate in Italy. I love homestyle dishes, but personally I was more engaged by the fabulous tableware including a gorgeous etched glass and those gilded plates. So lovely. So hard to fit in my purse.
The caponata was a well executed blend of vegetables, tender fried eggplant, celery leaves and raisins in an agro-dolce sauce, which was meant to complement….
..a perfectly seared wild bass steak garnished with a twine wrapped sprig of mint, half bulb of (roasted?) garlic, and a swirl of a pesto-like mint oil. For this course, I feel like we missed the boat a little bit. The rather intoxicated couple beside us had beckoned vigorously to a waiter to let him know, with almost palpable discomfort, that there was a bone in the fish. The waiter said, “……Yes?” and I felt somewhat smug as I deftly released the bone from our portion and we ate around it. However, afterwards, I noticed that the other table had completely consumed the garlic and mint sprig, which made sense because clearly they were there for a reason, and we had erroneously tossed them aside like sprigs of wilted parsley on the spaghetti plate.
Finally there were some puffy and crisp chickpea fritters (panella) to balance the dish. These were quite aggressively seasoned, which was thankfully in complement to the fish was was not.
Overall, it was a perfectly competent homestyle Italian dish, but not challenging, evocative or exciting in the way that I had expected.
Before the next course, a waiter stopped by to lay down our flags: wilted red cabbage clutched in a wooden dowel and balanced by gravity against a cylindrical metal base. And no, this had nothing to do with the next course. Or the one after that. Or the one after that. Right now, get used to the cabbage as an ugly but theme-appropriate centerpiece, just like the pumpkin. So, hey, hint hint. You know the purpose will be revealed eventually.
The most startlingly beautiful dish in my opinion was next.
WOOLY PIG: fennel, orange, squid
Every element of this dish was carefully articulated and stunning, form the razor thin slice of fennel speared on a crunchy caramelized squid tentacle, to the fennel frond waving like a joyous flag in the back. The pig was unctuous and chewy, tender and sweet. Every element was perfectly prepared, and the balance of protein against the freshness of fennel and orange zest was sublime.
Also, it came on a Poke Yer Eye Out style skewer, impossible to eat with any modicum of dignity or grace, and that in itself was completely appealing.
Now for a red Burgundy, Maison Champy, Mazis-Chambertin (2006), which was served cooler than anticipated (as promised by the Sommelier). Tannic but earthy, dry and surprisingly thin on the tongue, this wine was a perfect complement to the study of mushrooms that was to follow.
WILD MUSHROOMS: pine, sumac, ramp
This technique was classic Achatz, turning the dish into an emotive experience that engages all of one’s senses, particularly the olfactory. First a pillow was laid down in front of each of us. The pillow, one of the service team explained, was filled with pine smoke. As we enjoyed the course, the pillow would gradually deflate, perfuming the air around us with the scent of evergreens.
As for the plate, there were wee baby enoki mushrooms, an intensely rich mushroom broth, mushroom foam, and a sprinkle of tart dried sumac on top of the ramp and tiny delicate flower petals. I felt as pensive as a rabbit in a quiet, dark forest glade. This dish was very ‘British Columbia’ for me.
HOT POTATO: cold potato, black truffle, butter
Along came another Achatz classic which, I understand, has been a must-have hit at his restaurant for the last several years. Once you taste it, you will understand why. A skewered sphere of hot potato, exquisitely tender and light after being poached in butter, was capped by a slice of black truffle on a skewer with a knob of chive and two small squares of parmesan butter. The skewer was followed by the cold potato soup which was incredibly rich with dairy fat, butter and sweet heavy cream, and the whole bite was so intensely truffled that I actually felt everything tingle as my eyes widened in lust.
This was a very, very good course.
In fact, I would go back in a heartbeat, prohibitive finances considered, if I knew that this dish was guaranteed to be on the menu. It was that good.
The next wine pairing snuck up on us before we knew it, the Prats & Symington ‘Chryseia’, Douro (2007). This Portuguese red was spicy and a little bit fruity, but perfectly balanced.
VENISON: red cabbage, mustard, paprika
Finally, finally, the purpose for those homely little red cabbage flags was revealed. I like to think of this as a “Make Your Own Goulash”, or Haute Hungarian cuisine. On the spoon was a gelled beer (the texture was far less appealing than the concept) backed by a chunk of paprika coated ephemerally light and creamy potato/bechamel mousse. Other flavors included tomato, mixed sweet peppers, quick pickled onion and chives, and a homemade mustard.
The plate itself was interactive, with an inlaid metal component that was lifted out and assembled a 4 pronged “bowl” on top of which the red wine braised cabbage was laid. Chunks of juicy, flavorful and perfectly seared venison went into the bowl, and after that it was up to you. Mike chose to pile all the flavors on top of one another and eat it as a massive explosion of flavor, but mine looked more like it was done by an autistic child, each flavor carefully placed in sequence and not touching the one that came before and the whole thing rolled into a long cigar.
And now, with the taste of truffle barely cleansed from our mouths by the jellied beer and venison wraps, our taste buds were again buffeted by the most intensely and exquisitely truffled mouthful of bliss.
BLACK TRUFFLE: explosion, romaine, parmesan
This little tortellini contained a sphericized ball of black truffle extraction that, quite literally, exploded in the mouth. There are no words for how startling and euphoric this dish was. This was another example of a time throughout the meal where we just ogled each other from opposite sides of the table, rolling the flavors around in our mouths, and afraid to speak lest we sully the experience.
The last wine pairing before reaching into the fortified and dessert wines was Valpolicella Classico Superiore ‘TB’ Bussola, Veneto (2006).
SQUAB: inspired by Miro
I always thought that Miro was a little bit rubbish, and, frankly, I really enjoyed trampling all over his work when we were in Barcelona. I also find Miro to be a little bit suspect here, because when I think of visually arresting but seemingly random spoons and cutlery, I think of Dali. However, at least this dish was more exciting than its so-called muse.
Each piece of cutlery, randomly arranged by the service staff, contained a perfect ‘taste’. From the succulent beef tenderloin, cooked sous vide and then seared for flavor, to a toothsome noodle in yuzu sauce, the elements could be eaten in any order to let you craft your own taste trail and experience.
Moving into the fortified wines, first was The Rare Wine Co. ‘Boston Bual’ Madeira. I adore fortified wines like rich ruby Ports, complex and sweet Madeira and Marsala, or even the occasional nip of sherry. This was saccharine but complex, perfumed with – surprisingly enough – an almost floral raisin note.
The final savory course was another decadent and rich experience.
CHESTNUT: veal heart, quince, root vegetables
In a rounded egg-shell like bowl there was a rich, gently sweet and nutmeg scented chestnut sauce (possibly meant to be a soup, but anything that rich counts as a sauce in my opinion). Perched above on a fork was some leathery quince, veal heart, and a tiny confetti of root vegetables which added little more than color and some much needed texture. After eating the forkful you were to drink the sauce, and the combination of flavors was absolutely heavenly. The flavors reminded me of crackling leaves and gray October winds, snuggling up by a fire and toasting chestnuts in the dusk. Seriously, this was like Thanksgiving in a bowl. That is, if Thanksgiving had less turkey and canned cranberry sauce, and more veal heart and chestnut velouté.
Thankfully, a palate cleanser before dessert.
Handheld in a cornucopia shaped piece, the bright and acid ‘snow’ was yuzu flash frozen with liquid nitrogen. There was very little ‘snow’ to be spooned off, but it was so pungent and tart-sweet that the scant mouthful was both essential and just right.
The next dessert wine was Dagueneau et Pautrat ‘Les Jardins de Babylone’ Jurançon (2004).
Even if it was reminiscent of another classic El Bulli dish, the first dessert course was interesting and compelling, if not the most enjoyable dish we had been served.
ANJOU PEAR: jasmine, basil, balsamic
A very Mondrian collection (who I have the same scant affection for as Miro), this dish was composed of jellied, dehydrated, or atomized pear, pureed basil, creme fraiche, either a fresh mozzarella or burrata (we can’t remember which), with a few little cubes of nougat. I really liked the nougat, which is stretching for the positive here. I understand what he was going for in this dish, but the textures really did not shine. It was like a choice between jellied, mousse-like and wobbly, or papery crisp. Well, except for the nougat. If this dish had just a bit more nougat, and a bit LESS gelling agent……at least there was a certain joy and childlike fervor to be found in mixing and matching the little cubes in an effort to find the perfect taste experience (“this bite will be a balsamic and pear….THIS bite will be creme fraiche with basil and pear…THIS bite will be–”). Even if I never found it.
LEMONGRASS: dragonfruit, thai basil, finger lime
It was at about this time that I muttered something to Mike about how Achatz should have just stuck to the truffles. Gorgeous presentation, as always, serving the dessert in a clear test tube with an edible “stopper” of jellied fruit. It was sweet, fragrant, floral and herbaceous, but not overwhelming.
The final drink pairing was Domaine Madeloc, “Robert Pages” Banyuls (NV). The French Banyul was a rich mahogany color with a sweet fruity complexity, redolent of prunes, baked quince and spice. Although this dessert wine was French, it was reminiscent of some of the finer sherries that we had enjoyed in Spain (once we learned that “sherry” tasted like a local brand of rubbing alcohol mixed with cider, but “sweet sherry” referred to something that tasted more like heaven), which makes sense considering that the grapes are harvested from an eastern appellation that butts against the border of France and Spain.
At this point, the meal was coming to a rapid close. Despite feeling incredibly pampered and luxuriously satiated, both physically and psychologically, there was still a moment of sadness in feeling that our last course would truly be our last. However, if nothing else, Achatz ensures that the meal goes out with a bang. Literally.
First, the table was stripped by our service team and an oyster coloured silicone table cloth (which reminded me suspiciously of an outfit I used to wear to the clubs in University) was laid down. Presented at the far end away from us was a large chocolate orb, a ‘smoking’ beaker of some sort, a collection of spoons, and 4 small ramekins.
We had absolutely no idea what would come next.
One of the chefs silently joined the table. Without making eye contact, he set the large chocolate egg in the center of the table and poured the smoking vial inside. As the fog spilled out and around like a weird science project gone right, he began painting long, sweeping stripes of color onto the table with what was inside the ramekins. Alternating colors one by one, our table was decorated with coulis that had transformed into edible paint.
He straightened his back, turned around to leave, and then paused. Almost as an afterthought, he reached over and quickly rapped the chocolate egg, shattering it onto the table in a rupture of color, texture, temperature and flavor. And then he was gone.
This dessert was absolutely magnificent, and far more sugar than two people could possibly hope to consume. From the snowy spun sugar that was reminiscent of candy-floss to the chewy nougat, crunchy chocolate bark and cold, creamy frozen “snow”, there was something for everyone in this riotous treat.
As we sat picking at shattered chocolate with our hands, giggling at the sheer fun and novelty of this dessert, we agreed that this was the perfect end to an absolutely exceptional meal. Although there were some courses that I was less than smitten by, every thing that we were served was interesting, exciting, or challenging. This meal was memorable not only for the artistry and attention to perfection in each course, but more so because it was so dynamic and engaging, bringing the diner into play as a character in the story of dinner, rather than being a passive observer.
Was this the ‘best’ meal that we have ever had? Absolutely.
Was it prohibitively expensive and guilt inducing to our middle-class financial conscience? Oh yes, my friends. Yes it was.
Will this be an experience that we will always treasure, and the most spectacular anniversary present that we could give to one another, as fellow foodies and budding oenophiles? A thousand times, YES. In fact, my post-dinner euphoria was so great that I almost forgave Grant Achatz for being such a brilliant but possibly despicable cad. Almost.
1723 North Halstead